Of all the (admittedly few) streaming boxes I’ve tried, the Roku 3 that we have is, by far, my favorite. A close second to the Roku 3, though, is Roku’s own streaming stick, which was just announced to get a pretty major upgrade in the coming weeks!
The New Roku Streaming Stick
The new Roku Streaming Stick takes what was a very small device to begin with and makes it a bit thinner and longer – making it easier to fit in a crowded HDMI port area – but the real story is what happened inside the device and within the app.
Quad-Core Processor and Other Internal Improvements
The new Streaming Stick has a quad-core processor with 8 times the processing power of the old Streaming Stick, according to Roku chief marketing officer Matthew Anderson, which means that the sometimes-laggy menus that plagued the older model should be a thing of the past. Since this is the way you’ll interact with the Roku 95% of the time, even a small performance boost here can make the whole device feel much quicker and smoother.
The new Stick also has a different WiFi antenna placement, and is 802.11n dual-band capable, which should improve streaming performance and load times even in a crowded WiFi environment. Because of its size, the stick does lack an Ethernet port, so WiFi is your only connection option.
A New App With One Neat Trick
One of the neatest things about the Roku 3 (and the Roku 4) is its remote. Not necessarily the fact that the remote connects with the Roku through WiFi Direct so you don’t have to point the remote at the Roku to have it register commands (you don’t even have to be in the same room!), but the little headphone jack on the side of the remote allows you to plug in some headphones, and the audio from whatever you are watching switches from your TV or stereo speakers to the headphones. Great for watching TV quietly at night without disturbing the rest of your household, or if you’re trying to concentrate on a complicated plot with lots of noise around!
The new Streaming Stick takes this concept one step further, though. While the remote for the Streaming Stick still uses WiFI Direct, it doesn’t have a headphone jack. Instead, if you use the Roku app (available on both iOS and Android for free) and are connected to the same WiFi network as your Roku, you can tap a button in the app which will simultaneously mute the audio coming out of your TV or stereo speakers, and pass it through to your phone. From your phone you can either listen to it from your phone’s speaker, regular headphones, or even Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately, only one person can use this feature at a time, but this is a much more flexible arrangement than the old Roku 3! According to Roku, this new feature is limited to the Streaming Stick right now.
That’s not the only reason to download the Roku app, though. Like the older Roku 2, the new Streaming Stick does not have voice search functionality built into the remote control, but it available through the app. You can also control the Roku interface through the app – so it’s well worth the (free) download.
Roku Streaming Stick vs. Chromecast
Google’s Chromecast is the other streaming stick that I have used the most. While both the price and the flexibility of the Chromecast were (and still are) two of its biggest positives, I think that our household gets much more use out of the Roku 3. Probably the biggest reason for that comes down to two things: the remote and interface.
The Chromecast, for all its positives, still eschews the remote, requiring that users control the device through their smartphones. In general, this isn’t a bad decision, but it does require that you not only have the Chromecast app installed on your phone (not that big of a deal), but that you have to install every app on your phone that you want to use on your TV. If you just use Chromecast for Netflix, then that may not be a big deal, but if you have 3 or 4 different media apps, it can be more than a little bit cumbersome at times.
This lack of remote leads into the other problem I have with Chromecast – the interface. Since each app developer incorporates the “Casting” button separately, this can lead to some implementations that aren’t as straightforward as an app like Netflix or Hulu. Combine that with the sometimes flakiness of the Casting control notifications, and there have been a couple of situations where I had to go back into the media app (which can take 5-10 seconds to load) in order to re-enable the notifications in order to pause a program. This is pretty awkward – and don’t even get me started on what happens when the device you’re using to control the Chromecast restarts unexpectedly!
All in all, I think a dedicated, real-life remote is a better choice for most platforms. While I do want to give Google’s Android TV/Nexus Player a try, I’m not all convinced that that program won’t meet the same fate as Google TV (which was depreciated in June of 2014), nor do I think it would have more apps or more growth than the Roku 3 that we currently have.
Out With the Old, In With the New
The new Roku Streaming Stick is available for pre-order now, and is expected to ship out on April 20th for the same price ($50) as the old model. The older versions of the Streaming Stick (model number 3500R) are discounted down to $40 until they are all gone!